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How I Failed To Stop The War In Bosnia

Residents of Sarajevo duck sniper fire during the spring of 1992

Residents of Sarajevo duck sniper fire during the spring of 1992

Twenty years ago, on the eve of the Bosnian war, Nenad Pejic was the program director of Sarajevo TV. War seemed inevitable, but he was prepared to make one last attempt to save the peace.

I picked up the phone and it was Radovan Karadzic.

“You, Mr. Pejic, are preparing a coup d’etat!” he screamed down the phone. “You want Bosnia to secede from Yugoslavia! The Serbs will never allow that. You are inciting the people against Yugoslavia and you have to stop the broadcast!”

It was April 1992, just days before the official start of the conflict. But the war was already knocking at the door, unannounced, undeclared, and uninvited. In Sarajevo, war was on everybody’s lips, but in the surrounding municipalities it was already here. Reports of ethnically motivated murders, expulsions, and robberies were pouring in to Radio TV Sarajevo (RTVSA). The city was on a knife-edge: there was sporadic gunfire at night, reports of snipers, multiple roadblocks, and paramilitary-run checkpoints.

Our reporters were in a bind. The Yugoslav National Army (JNA) wasn't just denying these reports and classifying them as sporadic incidents, but also physically obstructing every attempt by our journalists to verify them. Divided along ethnic lines, the state was paralyzed by the constant friction between the three ethnic parties, who only agreed on pushing the country to the edge of war.

March For Peace

On April 4, 1992, a day before Karadzic's phone call, we made a decision to cover a peace march. A small group of about 40 students spontaneously decided to march to the parliament building demanding peace and the resignation of all political parties. At RTVSA, we felt this might be the last chance to salvage peace and decided to cover the march live. Under normal circumstances this event was hardly newsworthy, but these weren't ordinary times. Our live, nonstop coverage lasted two entire days. The events that transpired were not only pivotal for Bosnia-Herzegovina, but the most difficult and intense professional and personal challenges I have ever faced.

We sent multiple crews to cover the event from different places. There was a risk that we'd be cut off from our crews, so we set up a “spare” TV station by placing cameras and reporters at locations that were unlikely to be discovered. In my office, I was watching the destiny of a country unfold on multiple screens from multiple locations. Switching between screens and crews I spent the entire night in my office as I watched the numbers of protesters swell. By nighttime, there were tens of thousands of people on the streets.

Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic

Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic

As the protests grew, going live with the broadcast seemed to be the right thing to do. I was scared and hopeful at the same time. I had no idea where this was going. By midnight, I realized I had not eaten; I was on a diet of coffee, beer, and cigarettes. Many of the camera views had no sound so I decided to play “Sarajevo My Love,” a song by local musician Kemal Monteno, on loop. I never saw emotions translate to the screen like that in my entire career.

On the morning of April 5, about 100,000 people were on the streets of Sarajevo and my ashtray was overflowing with cigarette butts. (The population of Sarajevo back then was about 500,000.) The atmosphere was overwhelming. There were people bringing food to the protesters, joining them, chanting slogans of peace, and calling for the resignation of the government. I received unconfirmed reports that the political parties (all of them) weren't allowing multiple bus convoys of demonstrators to join the protest.

But it was still almost impossible to verify any information. Sarajevo TV was receiving multiple phone calls from viewers demanding peace and for the coverage to continue. There was now a critical mass and the demonstrators were firm in their demands. They booed every potential speaker from the existing political parties who tried to talk to them. (A day later they did allow Alija Izetbegovic, then chairman of the state presidency, to speak but his speech was not greeted with cheers.) They desired politicians' resignation and they wanted peace. This mass of people was not led or coordinated by anyone, but they all chanted the same slogans. Their interviews told a story of 100,000 people with one voice.

For Bosnia's political parties this was the greatest threat ever posed to them. An organic movement was spontaneously demanding their wholesale resignation. It was in this context that I received the phone call from Karadzic, who was then the head of the Serbian Democratic Party (SDS).

Call From Karadzic

Karadzic's party had released an official statement that members of Izetbegovic's Party of Democratic Action (SDA) had infiltrated the demonstrators in an attempt to eliminate the SDS. They also said that RTVSA was engaging in war mongering. Before, and at the time of that statement, we would constantly run text on the screen, in capital letters: “Citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina, unite against war."

But despite Karadzic's threats, I refused to terminate the broadcast.

Nenad Pejic

Nenad Pejic

Then I received a call from Izetbegovic. “Mr. Pejic, what you and the TV is trying to do will not happen. You want to keep Bosnia-Herzegovina in Yugoslavia. You are inciting the people to go out onto the streets. You are trying to bring down the legally elected government!”

Once again, I refused to terminate the broadcast.

It was incredible, but not surprising, that both leaders had the same tone, rhetoric, and demands. By this point, we had no doubts we were doing the right thing and refused to stop covering the protests live.

Later that day, the protesters demanded that myself or Goran Milic, the head of the nationwide Yutel network, talk to them. They trusted us and I was not prepared for that. Speaking to them in any official manner would be crossing the line between journalism and politics. Besides, who was I to talk to them? Journalism was all I really knew at the time and anchoring a TV news show did not translate to directly speaking in front of 100,000 people.

As a TV station, responding to this volatile situation by doing the right thing, while retaining our journalistic integrity was a challenge. I felt I should somehow force the political leaders to sit down and begin a dialogue that would end this madness.

But how could I make them talk when their relationships were tainted by such grave mistrust? Should I invite the politicians to the studio? And, if so, in whose name? The name of Bosnia-Herzegovina? Peace? Voters? We didn’t officially represent any of those. The only thing I knew was unacceptable was doing nothing. Being a journalist, I was technically only responsible to the viewers of RTVSA and that gave me an idea.

I decided to invite Bosnia's politicians for a debate, in the name of the RTVSA viewers, with the hope they might come to some kind of agreement and not lead Bosnia down the path to war. We showed the entire text of the invitation on the screen, with follow-up music and pictures from the protest. At 5 p.m. on April 5, as requested, the leaders from the three main parties showed up, followed by a JNA general and an observer from the European Union. This began the longest hour of my life. Radovan Karadzic from the SDS, Alija Izetbegovic from the SDA, Miljenko Brkic from the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), General Milutin Kukanjac from the Yugoslav army, and the man from the EU all filed into the studio to potentially decide the fate of millions.

Everyone but Brkic and the EU envoy came with three bodyguards each, all of whom were armed to the teeth. Their very presence reeked of war. I don’t consider myself brave or abrasive, but in an act of unexplained courage and borderline rudeness, I was firm about not letting nine armed men into the studio. The general assisted me in my request and we agreed they were allowed into the studio, but only with their pistols fully holstered. Kalashnikovs had to stay outside.

Irresponsible Negotiations

The negotiations could begin, but not before I had to make another difficult decision. Do we broadcast the dialogue in the studio live? Do we broadcast it with a delay? Do we even record it? Under normal circumstances, this would have been easy. We would go live. However, both Besim Ceric, the station director, and myself were petrified of the potential consequences. One of the leaders could issue an order to his paramilitaries, secretly or openly, or one of them could make a very public point by walking out of the negotiations and effectively ending peace talks. It would be easy, then, to say that the war started on RTVSA. So we decided to announce the start of the peace talks and broadcast a joint statement at the end of it. We didn't even turn on the recording equipment. The drama of negotiations began to unfold. Since we were not going live, we decided to play a movie from World War II called “Neretva.”

Never in my life have I witnessed negotiations that were so important and were being conducted by individuals that were so irresponsible. Their bigotry, verbal traps, accusations, threats, and half-truths were appalling. They immediately dived into accusing and attacking each other while hundreds of thousands of citizens demanded peace on the streets of Sarajevo.

At one point Karadzic wanted to leave the studio. Believe it or not, I held him by his suit as he stood up from the chair. Shortly afterward, Izetbegovic, who was on my other side, wanted to leave as well, so I grabbed him too. I held onto their suit jackets and implored them not to leave. By this point, their security details were on full alert and, like faithful dogs, they were ready to defend their masters. But both Karadzic and Izetbegovic sat down and my sweaty palms released their suit jackets, leaving a little wrinkle on each.

I do not possess a transcript of the negotiations, but at one point General Kukanjac said: “ So Mr. Izetbegovic, do you agree that JNA troops should be stationed around Sarajevo, to protect the peace and prevent the escalation of the conflict to the rest of the country?” The comment was detached from reality as the war had already been waged outside the capital, but Izetbegovic responded, “You always do what you want to do anyway, so what’s the point.” The general was looking to legalize the siege of Sarajevo and was delighted. “I will take this as a sign of your approval. The orders will be given accordingly,” he said. And indeed, the city was protected from receiving humanitarian aid, food, and medical supplies for the next four years.

When Karadzic suggested that, as an army representative, Kukanjac should lay out the rules of the cease-fire, the general responded: “I think this is something you should agree on yourselves. This is not a matter for the army. The political parties started this mess. The army will not engage in politics. You agree on something and we will implement it.” Miljenko Brkic was the least vocal of the three. He seemed like a man who didn't want to be there.

Sometimes I wish the negotiations had been recorded to show the people of Bosnia the politicians they had voted for. The EU representative was visibly stunned at the sight of this dangerously theatrical behavior. When an agreement for a cease-fire was finally reached, Brkic said to me: “I suggest, Mr. Pejic, that we do not engage in further discussions over the agreement just reached because we will start fighting immediately. I think it's best if you read the points we agreed on and we can just nod our heads confirming our agreement on those points.” I had those points handwritten on an ordinary piece of paper. Everybody in the studio agreed, by nodding their heads in slow motion, almost reluctantly.

Point by point, four heads in the studio nodded slowly, and officially the negotiations had ended. The politicians left with their army of bodyguards. “You did a great thing for your country, sir,” the EU representative said to me afterward. Unfortunately I didn't share his illusion. ”Actually I haven’t. As soon as they leave the building they will ruin everything,” I said. His face froze. But as far as that afternoon was concerned, there was peace. We rolled out a final message on the TV screen: “A cease-fire agreement has been reached. There are no more gunshots in Bosnia-Herzegovina.” News reports until the end of the day were filled with peace and hope. I hugged a few of my colleagues and then went home, hoping it hadn't all been for nothing.
A phone call woke me the next morning. “I am sorry,” the voice said. “It's here.” In the early morning of April 6, 1992, war broke out and the siege of Sarajevo began.

Twenty years later, I have to admit that both Karadzic and Izetbegovic were right. I did want to motivate -- they would say "incite" -- people to join the protest. Our decision to go live with a protest that started with just 40 students was a political one after all, and perhaps completely unprofessional. But we had an opportunity to use the media for peace, instead of war, and I will never regret that.

Nenad Pejic is a regional director at RFE/RL and a former head of RFE/RL's Balkan Service.

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